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Review: The Grapes of Wrath (Royal & Derngate)

John Steinbeck's classic novel has been adapted for the stage by Frank Galati

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Poverty is grim. Official corruption is bad. Homelessness is humiliating. All these are important, timely messages that art and culture have a duty to explore and illuminate. John Steinbeck's 1939 novel set in Depression-era America won a Pulitzer Prize for its gritty insight into these eternal knotty issues.

Now this adaptation by Frank Galati is being given a mini tour of four regional venues which have pooled producing duties to bring Steinbeck's cautionary tale to the stage. Seldom can so much resource have been committed by so many theatres to so little dramatic effect.

Southampton and Nottingham have already played host to the production, which tells the salient, salutary story of the upright but ill-fortuned Joad family's migration west in search of a new Utopia in California, only to find their dreams dashed by the harsh realities of Hooverville and anti-migrant prejudice.

It should be a powerful, epic tale for our time, depicting its universal truths through the deeply personal tragedy of one family. In the hands of director Abbey Wright, it's a ramshackle sprawl of a production, dragged out interminably across nearly three hours of monotone misery. She somehow succeeds in rendering the epic as, frankly, rather dull.

No expense has been spared on scale. Thirteen professional actors are supplemented by a vast ensemble of community players whose function remains bewilderingly obscure. Designer Laura Hopkins has created two giant see-through Portakabins on wheels which, for me, fail on every level to serve the story, instead behaving as monolithic slabs of half-light that simply occupy the performance space with obstinate intransigence.

Perhaps most dispiritingly of all, Matt Regan's music does the exact opposite of enhancing the storytelling by being deliberately, stubbornly anachronistic and putting massive aural obstacles in the way of the narrative. His programme note describes searching for a musical idiom that sounds "strange, out of place, wrong". Well, at least he's achieved that.

The anachronisms are clearly deliberate. Some of the ensemble are dressed in modern-day clothes, reinforcing the point that we're still grappling with social iniquity today. But Regan's score is dissonant to the point of unlistenable and so utterly unhelpful as to be a crashing intrusion on any vestige of drama that might be mined by the willing company.

And willing they are. There should be a law about directors requiring actors to do demeaning things gratuitously. In this instance, among a multitude of awkward moments, there's superfluous full frontal male nudity and an appallingly uncomfortable final scene that almost defies description and leaves the audience in a state of stunned silence as the play stutters to its unsatisfying conclusion.

Fortunately, two performances redeem the incipient debacle. Andre Squire as the returning prodigal son Tom is a gratifyingly grounded linchpin that just about gathers the whole together. He's believable, honest and consistent. Likewise, Brendan Charleson's portrayal of the lapsed preacher Casy is not only clearly drawn, but also delivered with some much-needed emotional engagement. It's just a shame that these two are cut adrift on swirling oceans of indifference.

The Grapes of Wrath runs at the Royal & Derngate until 20 May, then at the West Yorkshire Playhouse from 24 May to 10 June.